AN: A big thanks to jujulica for talking me through some writer's block in this chapter. You're the best!
Also, if you have a moment, please check out my companion short story to Sea Foam, "The Lantern!" It's a brief story about Phillip and Ellen (Peter and Stefan's parents) that also explains a bit about Pheia.
Adva scratched restlessly at her nose. She scowled as it continued to drip. For eight months since Stefan and Peter had found her on the beach, she had enjoyed perfect health. She was even beginning to believe that perhaps merpeople were simply impervious to the troublesome human illnesses that seemed to bother them so often.
But now this!
Her head ached. Her face felt puffy and itchy. Her throat felt scratchy and hot. And her nose!
The silly thing had continued to drip without ceasing since she woke up.
She turned her head away blushing as a servant hurried by with a pail of water, holding her hand over her face.
You are a wicked, wicked nose! I cannot see Peter like this! She scolded it roundly.
Alice was shuffling about the kitchen in her peculiar way, scowling and shouting orders to harassed, aproned servants. Flour dusted the floor. Four women were crowded around the oven, attempting to clean up spattered, sticky brown dough.
"Who put this in the oven? Who is responsible for this?" Alice stopped near the oven, one wrinkled hand on her hip and the other jabbing a finger at the mess,
The women in aprons all seemed to cringe and bend farther over their work, scrubbing furiously.
Finally, a short, red-haired woman spoke, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
"Well, Portia and I thought we might try and improve the recipe... It's very coarse."
Alice raised an eyebrow.
Portia, a tall, skinny woman with graying brown hair, passed her cleaning rag from hand to hand nervously. "We added a bit of this and a bit of that..."
"And then..." the first woman gestured.
"We're very sorry," Portia added. "We'll clean everything up..."
Alice crossed her arms and sighed. "I suppose this is the sort of situation Lady Ellen might have called an experiment 'in the interest of science.'" She chuckled, then turned on her heel sharply and left the four women to their doleful scrubbing.
She lifted her chin at the sight of the young woman clutching the doorway, one hand upon her cherry red nose, and eyes imploring.
"Adva. What is the matter, child?"
The girl gestured helplessly to her nose with her free hand, blushing. Alice tilted her head to peer over her fingers.
"Bother. It seems you've caught a head-cold. It's no surprise; tends to happen when the weather changes and the flowers open up," said the wise old woman. She touched Adva's forehead with a gnarled hand and frowned. "Seems you've developed a bit of a fever, too. It would be best if you rested today, instead of going out to shore with Peter again."
"Now don't you look at me like that. You'll feel better by tomorrow if you rest. If you go to the sea today, you'll get worse." She held up her finger to Adva's waving hands, indicating that she would be fine. "No, there's no arguing. If you didn't want good advice you oughtn't have come to me. Move along, now. I'll tell the prince there's been a change of plans."
The girl wrinkled her nose and turned away, heading up the stairs. It was no use arguing with Alice, she wouldn't budge under the most pleading looks.
She entered her room and sank onto her bed dejectedly. They were going to gather sea shells today. It always so delighted Peter. At first this had amused her, his great love for the little treasures that washed in from the ocean, remembering the wealth of coral groves and sparkling riches from shipwrecks that always made their way to the bottom of the sea. Soon, however, she found it endearing, and noble, as she always eventually thought of all his habits and hobbies.
Lying down did seem to keep her head from spinning so much, however, and soon she found herself drifting to sleep.
When she awoke to a gentle knock on her door, the sun was beginning to set. She sucked in a surprised breath, snorted, choked, blushed, and sat up a bit as Peter entered the room. There was a wicker basket on his arm, a tray with soup in his hands. The prince closed the door behind him, taking in Adva's flustered, weary expression. He set the tray on the nightstand wordlessly, and pulled a chair up to her bedside, setting the basket beside the soup. He gestured for her to lay back down, dark eyes concerned.
They were often completely silent together these days. At first, Peter had spoken enough for both of them—telling Adva stories of his childhood, his mother, and explaining the complicated politics which held Pheia together. She, in turn, would make frenzied signs with her hands and face to get her meaning across. Now, however, they had settled into a comfortable quiet, in which each only "said" anything when they felt moved to it.
Right now, he simply watched her for a few moments. She smiled back at him from the pillows, shivering a bit as their eyes met.
The gaze held for a few, pulsing seconds, before Peter turned his eyes away, flushing.
"Stefan...didn't come today. He's with Catherine right now."
Then, they were silent again. The prince lifted up the soup, question in his eyes. She nodded, blushing, and he placed it in her hands. When the hand that took the offered spoon quaked slightly, he held her fingers, helping her take the first bite. The electric jolt that ran through both of them was sufficient to wrench them apart in a hurry. Adva's hands ceased shaking as she hurriedly swallowed down soup. Peter looked out the window, a quiet smile on his face.
As she finished, the prince took the wicker basket into his lap. He tilted it so that she could see.
He cleared his throat. "I went shelling for a bit before dinner. I thought you might like to see today's catch." His smile widened when she took the basket into her arms eagerly.
Adva pawed through his treasures, eyes bright. Although the shells did not fascinate her, Peter's love for them did. She ached to tell him what she knew of each—how the little hermit crabs so dearly loved the little gray triton shells, that the rough brown mussels had probably come from the untouched trove that lay not far from where she and her sisters had once lived...
A shot of homesickness startled her, and tears sprang to her eyes. She pushed the shells away, turning her head, trying to stop her tears. This only seemed to agitate them, pouring down her cheeks in hot, wet, unsightly trails.
Peter observed this, stunned, for several moments.
Adva placed her hands over her eyes. Crying brought the headache back with force. She struggled to keep her nose from dripping on the covers. Embarrassment at her outburst compounded her distress, until her shoulders shook with irrational aggravation. Although she had cried many times from homesickness since she had come to the surface, she had never done so in front of Peter. The embarrassment was scorching.
She cringed when she felt Peter's hand on her shoulder, then gasped as she felt herself pulled into his arms. He pressed her against his chest with one gentle hand, the other soothing her hair, slightly damp with fever.
For a few moments, she was too shocked to cry. Then humiliation, uneasy regret, doubt, and relief that Peter was, at last, holding her, swept through her body, and she was appalled to find herself sobbing.
Peter did not stiffen or speak. Instead, he merely continued stroking her hair, eyes cast down, as she cried.
After several minutes, she pulled away, wiping her eyes discreetly, forcing a smile to her face.
"I'm alright," she tried to say, then flushed, realizing her mistake.
His hands stayed in her hair, expression pained.
They were silent for a few moments.
Finally, he drew his hand carefully, eyes seeking permission, to her cheek. She cast her gaze to the side, unable to meet his eyes.
"They reminded you of home?"
She reddened, nodding.
He pulled her to him again. She succumbed meekly, allowing him to rest her head against his shoulder.
"Oh, Adva..." he sighed, sounding worn. "I would give anything to be able to help you. I wish you could speak, that you could tell me where it is... You must miss it dreadfully."
Not when you hold me like this, she thought, her eyes squeezing shut. She let her arms rise to return the embrace, clutching at his jacket. Not when you look at me that way. Then I remember why I came here. To Pheia.
Stefan felt his nerves fraying as he sat down to dinner with his father. Phillip was no longer studiously avoiding Stefan's eyes, as he had yesterday at supper, but the warm (if weary) smile that had always greeted him before their recent row was still absent. He glanced up in acknowledgment, then turned his focus back to his plate.
The prince murmured his thanks to the page who pulled out his chair, handing him a small white towel. He placed it in his lap, waving his hand to dismiss the young boy. The prince smiled slightly at the quick step of the lad in the white linen uniform. From the sound of his happy chatter yesterday afternoon, Alec would soon join the ranks of the castle staff.
Father and son ate without meeting eyes. Alice had prepared an excellent chicken, garnished with roasted vegetables with a peculiar new spice just received this morning from the town merchants. They occupied themselves with this for a good quarter of an hour.
Between mouthfuls, the king finally grunted, "The salt."
"Yes, father?" Stefan said, startled.
"Please give me the salt, son," repeated Phillip.
Stefan dropped his fork, grasping the small salt-well in the center of the table and rising. He placed it in the king's waiting palm, pivoted to return to his chair, and found his hand grasped tightly.
"Take a seat beside me, Stefan."
The prince nodded respectfully and pulled out a nearby chair, sitting beside his father with a look of uncertainty.
"I have thought much of your words the other night."
Phillip took a large bite of chicken. He chewed to stall, thinking hard, watching his son's face. It was a mask.
"You have done well by Pheia since your brother's...changes."
Now he took a sip of wine.
"You have behaved...well, son, you have behaved like a king."
Stefan realized he had been holding his breath, and now exhaled deeply. "Thank you, Father."
The king at last locked eyes with his son, his face set.
"It would seem that you and I have much to discuss, and many things to do. And quickly, too. After all, the sooner all of this is arranged, the sooner these blasted ambassadors will stop gossiping themselves into a frenzy," said the king, nodding wearily at his son, who returned it with an understanding sigh.
Each stroked his beard with a frown, then caught the other at the habit, and laughed.
They spoke long into the night.